March 23rd, 2011
10:56 AM ET

Organized religion 'will be driven toward extinction' in 9 countries, experts predict

By Richard Allen Greene, CNN

Organized religion will all but vanish eventually from nine Western-style democracies, a team of mathematicians predict in a new paper based on census data stretching back 100 years.

It won't die out completely, but "religion will be driven toward extinction" in countries including Ireland, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the Netherlands, they say.

It will also wither away in Austria, the Czech Republic, Finland and Switzerland, they anticipate.

They can't make a prediction about the United States because the U.S. census doesn't ask about religion, lead author Daniel Abrams told CNN.

But nine other countries provide enough data for detailed mathematical modeling, he said.

"If you look at the data, 'unaffiliated' is the fastest-growing group" in those countries, he said.

"We start with two big assumptions based on sociology," he explained.

The first is that it's more attractive to be part of the majority than the minority, so as religious affiliation declines, it becomes more popular not to be a churchgoer than to be one, he said - what Abrams calls the majority effect.

"People are more likely to switch to groups with more members," he said.

Social networks can have a powerful influence, he said.

"Just a few connections to people who are (religiously) unaffiliated is enough to drive the effect," he said.

The other assumption underlying the prediction is that there are social, economic and political advantages to being unaffiliated with a religion in the countries where it's in decline - what Abrams calls the utility effect.

"The utility of being unaffiliated seems to be higher than affiliated in Western democracies," he said.

Abrams and his co-authors are not passing any judgment on religion, he's quick to say - they're just modeling a prediction based on trends.

"We're not trying to make any commentary about religion or whether people should be religious or not," he said.

"I became interested in this because I saw survey data results for the U.S. and was surprised by how large the unaffiliated group was," he said, referring to a number of studies done by universities and think tanks on trends in religion.

Studies suggest that "unaffiliated" is the fastest-growing religious group in the United States, with about 15% of the population falling into a category experts call the "nones."

They're not necessarily atheists or non-believers, experts say, just people who do not associate themselves with a particular religion or house of worship at the time of the survey.

Abrams had done an earlier study looking into the extinction of languages spoken by small numbers of people.

When he saw the religion data, his co-author "Richard Wiener suggested we try to apply a similar technique to religious affiliation," Abrams said.

The paper, by Abrams, Wiener and Haley A. Yaple, is called "A mathematical model of social group competition with application to the growth of religious non-affiliation." They presented it this week at the Dallas meeting of the American Physical Society.

Only the Czech Republic already has a majority of people who are unaffiliated with religion, but the Netherlands, for example, will go from about 40% unaffiliated today to more than 70% by 2050, they expect.

Even deeply Catholic Ireland will see religion die out, the model predicts.

"They've gone from 0.04% unaffiliated in 1961 to 4.2% in 2006, our most recent data point," Abrams says.

He admits that the increase in Muslim immigration to Europe may throw off the model, but he thinks the trend is robust enough to withstand some challenges.

"Netherlands data goes back to 1860," he pointed out. "Every single data that we were able to find shows that people are moving from the affiliated to unaffiliated. I can't imagine that will change, but that's personal opinion, not what the data shows."

But Barry Kosmin, a demographer of religion at Trinity College in Connecticut, is doubtful.

"Religion relies on human beings. They aren't rational or predictable according to the laws of physics. Religious fervor waxes and wanes in unpredictable ways," he said.

"The Jewish tradition that says prophecy is for fools and children is probably wise," he added.

And Abrams, Wiener and Yaple are not the first to predict the end of religion.

Peter Berger, a former president of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion, once said that, "People will become so bored with what religious groups have to offer that they will look elsewhere."

He said Protestantism "has reached the strange state of self-liquidation," that Catholicism was in severe crisis, and anticipated that "religions are likely to survive in small enclaves and pockets" in the United States.

He made those predictions in February 1968.

- Newsdesk editor, The CNN Wire

Filed under: Atheism • Austria • Ireland

soundoff (3,551 Responses)
  1. Hangar18

    Good riddance. If it wasn't for religion, we would be at least 1000 years ahead of where we are now.

    March 30, 2011 at 9:26 am |
  2. Singe

    That comment about "prophecy" at the end was a bit juvenile on the part of the talking head there, trying to make scientists look like smug, sneering, loveless elitists. This sort of mockery is typical of people who fear societal progress, and I'm not even talking about religion.

    The reason the scientist laughed was because the Jewish saying was a non-sequitur for the topic at hand. The study wasn't making any prophecy. Prophecies come along the lines of, "This WILL happen." In this case science is saying, "The results of this study suggest this might happen." To call that a prophecy is indeed quite literally laughable.

    It is simply an interesting study which calls for more research on the subject to be done.

    March 30, 2011 at 9:24 am |
  3. syntaxerror

    Religion makes people mindless idiots unable to think for themselves instead relying on age old remarks made by an evil dictator..

    Has any of these mindless idiots ever actually read the bible or do they just take the churches word...

    Try reading the below..

    Mathew 15:21 thru 15:28....

    Mathew 10:34

    March 29, 2011 at 11:43 pm |
  4. Robert Austin

    We would certainly be beter off without it.

    March 29, 2011 at 10:40 pm |
  5. sh

    I think the author really means "Christianity" will be replaced by "Islam" - funny how that works.

    March 29, 2011 at 11:29 am |
    • Singe

      Wouldn't replacing Christianity and Judaism with Islam be sort of a lateral move? They're pretty much all the same.

      But it's ridiculous to think such a thing will happen. It's a tale for paranoiacs addicted to fear.

      March 30, 2011 at 9:43 am |
  6. Christopher Range

    Pure garbage! The media can knock religion all they want, but it is not disappearing!!!

    March 29, 2011 at 10:48 am |
  7. Silliness

    See, look what's happening here. People are fighting over religion. I'll bet some of you wish religions were never invented. I sure do.
    However, humans would just find something else to kill each other over.

    March 29, 2011 at 9:21 am |
  8. Jesus of Nazareth

    Yeaaaaaay, what great news. Wait, we have to wait like 40 years? Awe man.

    March 29, 2011 at 2:38 am |
  9. The One True Steve

    So someone explain why Jews, Christians and Muslims have to have the same God. Why can't it be a different God. The stories are too different for it to be the same. What's the big deal if they are different Gods?

    March 29, 2011 at 1:39 am |
  10. DRM

    I get a laugh out of these studies. Why is a physics society interested in studying trends in "affiliation" anyways? Stick to studying something that you know about – like math and physics. The population of the nine countries predicted to be religion-extinct is about 97 million according to wikipedia population data. This is roughly 1.4% of the world's population. In Africa alone, Christianity (alone) is expected to grow by 200 million worshippers (more than double all nine of the to-be-extinct countries) by 2025 after having tripled in worshippers in the last 35 years to 390 million. I understand that Africa has to export missionaries back to Europe due to the declines there. Perhaps more interesting than the predicted "extinction" of religion in these nine countries is the overall trends in religious belief worldwide.

    March 28, 2011 at 10:33 pm |
    • Bobbo

      and lots of more people in Africa will get aids than in these does that mean they are right for doing that too

      March 30, 2011 at 1:13 am |
    • Missouri Mama

      Yes, and Ireland is still 96% "affiliated," so I don't think they're going anywhere soon either...

      March 30, 2011 at 9:48 am |
  11. Nix

    A little longer and we'll be done with religion. We do need social groups, but not all the guilt and misery.

    March 28, 2011 at 9:36 pm |
  12. Voice of Reason

    Whether we are all Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Muslim, atheist, or agnostic, can't we just get along? We could forget about our religious differences and focus on the similarities and work together to improve the world.

    March 28, 2011 at 6:50 pm |
    • captain ovious

      if only all of them were actually doing somthing to improve the world

      March 29, 2011 at 4:45 pm |
    • Voice of Reason

      I'm saying that we all could do great things if we forgot our religious quarrels and worked together. If we were all as reasonable as we claim to be, we would realize that people will believe what they want, and that we should put that aside and work together to make the world a better place for people of all religions.

      March 30, 2011 at 6:50 pm |
  13. Sailor

    I consider the article good news. All of the poeple who've done wrong to me in my life have been self-professed Christians. I prefer the morality of the socially responsible atheist. Many yeaers ago, back in college days, I printed bumper stickers "Darwin Loves You," "Darwin Saves," & "Honk if you love Darwin." Perhaps it is time for another print run–

    March 28, 2011 at 5:34 pm |
  14. I agree. they will be gone.

    I agree that they will be gone. I don't think you can take hope away from people and communities of people acting in truly humanitarian interests are unlikely to go away (could be your local motorcycle club, wouldn't have to be a religion, but a community can deal with things that individuals can't sometimes. i think those will stay).

    March 28, 2011 at 3:21 pm |
  15. citizenUSA

    Seems like more and more people are realizing that religion is just an earthly "feel good" conglomoration. With the way the world is today I believe that many have such terrible struggles on earth that being concerned about what MIGHT happen to them when they die is just not as important as having food for your family, ducking bullits from drug and gang wars and such while your still alive. Perhaps people are becoming dis-illusioned with the thought that the great force in the sky is not watching out for it's flock.

    March 28, 2011 at 2:23 pm |
  16. Dave

    IWe'll all find out at the end of our lives. It's the one thing all of us will experience. Believe what you want. You're not being forced to believe in God by God. He wouldn't have. So thank you for not trying to force your unbelief on me. It's amazing how "religious" atheists and agnostics get!

    March 28, 2011 at 1:19 pm |
    • JR

      Dave, your logic is hilarious. Please understand that saying atheism is a religion is like saying 'not collecting stamps' is a hobby. Atheists by definition REJECT belief in anything that requires blind faith. For example, I have FAITH that my city's school buses will get my city's children to school safely. But that faith is based upon evidence that the school bus drivers have a great track record of driving. My faith in them is not without warrant.

      On the other hand, your faith is based on nothing; and what's worse, you actually take pride in that. Think about how crazy that is. You are PROUD to believe in something for which there is no empirical evidence. Your belief in god is the same as someone's belief in leprechauns, simply because they are equally compelling in terms of empirical evidence substantiating their existence. All you have is a 2000 year old completely unverifiable text. The fact that millions of people worship your imaginary god doesn't make him real. Millions of people used to worship all kinds of gods. And today, modern humans know with complete clarity that they were all imaginary. Think about your place in history. Today's religion is tomorrow's mythology. Think about it honestly.

      March 29, 2011 at 9:17 am |
  17. Jean-Paul

    Statistics are just that, statistics! Organized religion may be on the way out but faith and the love of God is not. I think people have personal relationships with God, Yawhve, Allah etc. that do not need to be quantified.

    March 28, 2011 at 8:17 am |
    • JR

      Just because someone thinks they have a personal relationship with some "god", doesn't mean that he's actually there. Just like a child with a fervent belief in Santa Claus, the BELIEF is what makes him real. So, you can see that if god is completely imaginary, it wouldn't make a difference to you because you would have no idea that he wasn't real. Just want you to be aware that you have a personal relationship with an imaginary being with whom you have never spoken or seen. Now think about how insane that is.

      March 29, 2011 at 9:09 am |
  18. Vicki

    Thank god I'm an atheist!

    March 28, 2011 at 7:16 am |
  19. Dave

    Finally, thank God!

    March 28, 2011 at 7:14 am |
    • Ryan

      Yes, it is about time!

      March 28, 2011 at 5:33 pm |
  20. proveit

    What does religion even mean? It is a set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe, especially when considered as the creation of a superhuman agency or agencies, The word especially does not exclude having faith in events that might have happened which no one saw also which no one can really prove happened in a lab . That is faith in someone with a PHD who said something is true to be true. 99% of people never really studied anything that they is true or not true. They have hope it is true but don't really know,They have faith and hope both of which are religion. Another part of religion involves devotional and ritual observances such as reading books written by people sayiig how to make your life or where life came from or can we stop global warming or listening to songs that up lift your moods. All this is also religion, People who that are higher and lower forms of aninmals and highers forms such as those who have higher degree or more power can teach or conform moral the conduct of human affairs by making laws that punish or reward this is also religion so I doubt religion will because everyone has faith in people or things they have not proven themselves. That makes them religious even if they are affiliated with an organization or not.

    March 28, 2011 at 4:45 am |
    • You Idiots

      I know of a religion that just increased by 2'000'000 people in less than 2 years...this of course was prophesied to happen in the bible...only one religion will make it through this era...The True Religion. And the point of this is there is nothing that any of you Nay-Sayers can do about that...because God is more powerful than any of us...but if you truly want to be happy, and you truly want to see your lost loved ones again......you will earnestly and honestly pray for God to direct your step, and he will point you in the right direction. One of the best things about the True Religion is that you do not have to pay them to be a part of their church, its free bible studies, and free to the public. But you have to see past the hatred that other people have toward it, and try to be reasonable with yourself and accept it in your heart...it is not burdensome Matt 7:19 is the answer to this entire article.

      March 28, 2011 at 5:04 pm |
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